This year’s flu epidemic is particularly nasty, showing widespread flu activity in every part of the continental U.S. for the first time in the 13 years the CDC has monitored the annual epidemic. Even though this year’s strain of influenza A (H3N2 ) is not a new virus, it’s killing up to 4,000 Americans a week, approaching the highest number of deaths on record. Health experts are trying to figure out why a virus that we’ve seen before is rivaling the mortality rates when a new virus emerged, such as the swine flu epidemic of 2009.
Flu activity continues to increase across the U.S. CDC data shows overall hospitalization rates are higher than they were at this point in 2014-15; the most recent “high” severity season. https://t.co/ycVdIWOx9s pic.twitter.com/uACmuPn1Up
— CDC Flu (@CDCFlu) February 9, 2018
The flu is rarely lethal in healthy individuals, but this year’s strain has proven particularly threatening.
“More people are being hospitalized with the flu this season than any time since the CDC began keeping track,” said Dr. Tara Narula. “Just last week, deaths from influenza and pneumonia were responsible for 1 out of every 10 deaths in the U.S.”
Swine flu killed 12,469 Americans in 2009-1020, but this year’s flu will likely be more deadly by the end of the season. In the third week of 2018, the CDC reported that 4,064 people died from pneumonia or influenza, which tend to come hand in hand. 63 deaths so far were children.
The influenza A virus causing most of the trouble this year has a record for being especially problematic. It’s also the dominant strain in the U.K. and in Australia. One strain is capable of traveling around the globe in months, as it mates and spread in the air. The virus continuously adapts by changing surface proteins and may even mutate when incubated for use in vaccines, resulting in a less effective treatment.
“H3N2 is historically the bad actor among influenzas,” he says. “It’s also associated with complications,” says Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Health National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.
Scientists are working on new ways to stop the flu, with some promising potential solutions on the horizon:
- New UV robots are being employed in a hospital in Arkansas to sterilize patient rooms.
- A company called Vaccitech is working on a universal vaccine to treat all strains of influenza A, which could be introduced in five years.
- Researchers from Columbia University are recommending the use of special ultraviolet light panels in hospitals, which kill the virus safely.
- A Japanese drug maker claims to have developed a pill that can kill the virus in a day, which could be introduced next year at the earliest.
There are 12 more weeks in the flu season and the CDC recommends getting vaccinated if you haven’t already done so. Although it’s not foolproof, it can protect against roughly 30% of H3 viruses. The shot has the added advantage of protecting from influenza B strains that tend to appear late in the season.
As always washing your hands remains on the most effective ways to combat the spread of flu. In addition, flu patients can take antivirals available from their doctor.
— CDC (@CDCgov) February 6, 2018
See more, including footage of the new UV robots, in the video from CBS This Morning below:
Featured image: Screenshot via YouTube